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Incredible Art Nouveau Architecture of Kharkiv… and the War

How much of Kharkiv will survive the 2022 Russian invasion?

I started this article last year to show the overlooked beauty of Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and a students’ hub with 70+ universities and institutes. Today, I don’t know how much of Kharkiv’s gorge will remain intact after being ruthlessly bombed by the invaders.

© Architecture photos by Slava Shestopalov; other pictures by respective authors.

I’ve been to Kharkiv only once, and despite the chilly weather and sporadic snow, it was the happiest journey within Ukraine. My wife and I visited my sister and her husband, both pregraduate musicians. Ira and Vitalik canceled all their plans — studying, teaching, and rehearsals — to spend 4 wonderful days with us exploring the city.

Home party with sushi, after which I tried to “play” my sister’s viola.

I had heard many people whining about Kharkiv. However, the city turned out to be hospitable and beautiful. I remember how my sister picked us up at the central railway station, and we merrily walked to the City Cafe 1654 for coffee and breakfast. I was a bit sleepy but laughing all the time…

At the City Cafe 1654: cappuccino in the morning; mulled wine in the evening.

Now that lovely cafe is in ruins…

Here’s how the nearby area looks after the Russian airstrikes. Fortunately, my relatives managed to escape the city right between consequent attacks, but many Kharkiv citizens have been killed, injured, and left homeless.

View of the devastated street from the City Cafe corner. © Serhiy Bobok, AFP

While I’m typing this, I feel bitter tightness in my throat. I hope to admire revived and rebuilt Kharkiv again someday. But meanwhile, let me virtually walk you along its peaceful streets from November 2020.

1. Oleksiy Beketov

One doesn’t simply talk about Kharkiv without mentioning its remarkable resident, academician Oleksiy Beketov (1862–1941). This Ukrainian architect of Russian descent designed over 40 buildings here: institutes, schools, banks, villas, and even one church (later dismantled by the Soviets).

Historical photograph of Oleksiy Beketov visiting a construction site.

Oleksiy Beketov employed lots of styles: Art Nouveau, neo-Classicism, neo-Renaissance, etc. Apart from designing, he also oversaw the construction: he was keen on aesthetic accuracy and efficient use of tools and materials.

Beketov’s House (1897)

Although Beketov designed many grand buildings, it’s fascinating to examine the architect’s own houses as they show a pristine author’s vision.

Beketov’s House in the afternoon.

Beketov built his own house in the neo-Greek style and lavishly decorated it inside and outside. However, the family didn’t live here for a long time; they had to sell this exquisite villa in 1901 due to the death and huge debts of Beketov’s father-in-law, Oleksiy Alchevsky.

Beketov House: bas-reliefs of different fine arts above the ground floor.

The house initially featured a large loggia with Caryatids (the upper floor on the right), but it didn’t survive the Second World War and was rebuilt as a room with conventional windows.

Today, this masterpiece is endangered again…

On March 2, a Russian ballistic missile ruined a century-old university building on the same street, just a 3-minute walk from Beketov’s House.

Firefighters at the Kharkiv University building. © Emergency Service of Ukraine
Kharkiv University building damaged by shelling. © Oleksandr Lapshyn, Reuters

Ukrainian cellist Denys Karachevtsev plays a fragment of Bach’s suite in front of the destroyed Kharkiv University building.

The second Beketov’s House (1912)

A new house appeared in a less prestigious neighborhood on a hill at the end of the street. The architect’s family occupied the upper floor, while the ground floor was for rent. One of the notable tenants who lived here in the 1930s was Mykola Samokish, a Ukrainian artist of Cossack descent famous for military and animal paintings.

Beketov’s House. A memorial plaque between the window and gate depicts artist Mykola Samokish.

This neo-Classical house looks much stricter than the first one, but it has the same enfilade floor plan with all rooms aligned along the corridors (just like in a museum). Reportedly, Beketov’s grandchildren still live here.

The facade decoration of Beketov’s House.

Kharkiv Medical Society & Pasteur Institute (1911–1913)

Although I’ve just mentioned the original title of this stunning neo-Classical building, it’s much better known by its current name — Mechnikov Institute of Microbiology and Immunology.

Institute of Microbiology and Immunology on a gloomy November morning.

Mechnikov Institute is one of the world’s oldest institutions of its type (founded in 1886). It bears the name of Illya Mechnikov, a famous Ukrainian-Russian-French scientist of Moldavian nobility and Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, Nobel Prize winner, and “Father of Innate Immunity.”

Although Beketov designed quite a few buildings for academic and scientific purposes in Kharkiv, I personally like this one the most. It’s decorated with vases supported by griffins, bas-reliefs, and geometric ornament.

The entrance decoration of the Institute.

By the way, Oleksiy Beketov’s student, Vasyl Krychevsky, was one of the most famous Ukrainian graphic designers and architects. He founded the Ukrainian Art Nouveau style and designed the 1918 Ukrainian coat of arms, banknotes, and governmental seals.

But the war doesn’t spare historical treasures…

On March 7, the largest work of Oleksiy Beketov in Kharkiv, the Building of Court Institutions, was destroyed as a result of the invaders’ air raid. The roof is torn apart; interiors are burnt to ashes.

The damaged Building of Court Institutions. © Serhiy Bobok, Kharkiv Times
Ruined houses on the Heavenly Hundred Square. © Serhiy Bobok, Kharkiv Times

More than 600 buildings in Kharkiv were damaged during the first three weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

2. Darwin Street

This 700-meter-long street is like an open-air architecture museum. I’ve already shown one of its gems, the neo-Classical Beketov’s House, so now let’s talk about four more remarkable villas.

Alchevsky’s House (1896)

You won’t find many Moorish-style buildings in Ukraine, especially so far from the Black Sea or Crimea; that’s why this one is so unique. Beketov designed it for his brother-in-law, Dmytro Alchevsky.

Alchevsky’s House: the main and side facades after a late autumn snowfall.

While the house owner, Dmytro, was a talented biologist and professor, I’d better tell you about his renowned parents, Oleksiy and Khrystyna.

Oleksiy Alchevsky (1835–1901) was a Ukrainian industrialist, banker, and philanthropist. Khrystyna Alchevska (1841–1920) is known as a Ukrainian teacher and prominent activist for national education in Imperial Russia. She opened schools and popularized the Ukrainian language and folk songs. Khrystyna’s gravestone says, “People’s enlightener.” Her work inspired Oleksiy Beketov to design educational buildings in Kharkiv pro bono.

1) Oleksiy Beketov with his wife. 2) The Alchevsky family. 3) Young Khrystyna Alchevska.

In 1903, soon after Oleksiy Alchevsky’s death, Dmytro Alchevsky sold his house because of financial troubles. The house got an extension in 1912 and has been a kindergarten and school until now. As far as I heard, Beketov’s great-grandchildren attended it.

“Red House” & Prof. Kovalenko’s House (1887)

Not far from the Moorish-style manor, you can see two adjacent red-brick houses designed in the trendy 19th-century style of Romanticism by architect Andrea-Moritz Thomson. The first house was constructed for Mrs. Zubovska but is colloquially named the Red House. It looks so new in the photo below due to the 2012 restoration.

The statue of Archangel Michael adores the left corner of the Red House.

The second house belonged to professor Oleksandr Kovalenko, a Ukrainian scientist and writer. In 1899, he participated in the mutiny of more than 300 Kharkiv students who demanded teaching in the Ukrainian language, which was banned in Imperial Russia.

The entrance decoration of the Red House and the balcony of Kovalenko’s House.

Later Kovalenko moved to Sevastopol, Crimea, and worked on the battleship “Potiomkin.” He tried to enlighten the Black Sea fleet sailors, most of whom were Ukrainians, and even organized a theater with a Ukrainian repertoire. When in 1905 “Potiomkin” sailors started a mutiny, Kovalenko was the only officer to support them.

Ryzhov House (1911)

This neo-Renaissance house was built for merchant P. Ryzhov and designed by another prolific Ukrainian architect, Viktor Velychko (1864–1923). Velychko is also the author of several Kharkiv University facilities and many administrative and residential buildings.

Ryzhov House: the balcony and Ionic colonnade.

Nowadays, this building accommodates a local department of the National Architects’ Society.

3. Sumska Street and the city center

Kharkiv’s main street stretches from Constitution Square to the northern city boundary. It’s named after the Ukrainian city of Sumy and was formerly called “Sumsky shlyakh” (Sumy roadway). The street features dozens of historical 19–20th-century buildings.

I took the photo below when we were sipping coffee at a nearby cafe, and Ira complained about the difficulties of her musical studying at the University of Arts across the street (a yellow and grey building).

A corner of Constitution Square. In the background is the Intercession Cathedral — the oldest church in Kharkiv, built in the style of Ukrainian Baroque in 1689.

And this is Constitution Square at the moment: shattered windows, scorched interiors, broken roofs, and missile debris…

Damages after the shelling of Constitution Square by Russian forces. © Serhiy Bobok, AFP

Other city districts turned out to be less lucky — many residential houses were flattened by the enemy’s bombs.

Damaged Russian armored vehicles and a destroyed house in Kharkiv. © Andrew Marienko, AP

Drama Theater (1841)

The theater building was designed by a Kharkiv architect of Russian-German descent, Andriy Ton, in the neo-Classical and neo-Renaissance styles. But what makes this edifice recognized is people.

In 1926, the famous Ukrainian theater group “Berezil” moved to Kharkiv Drama Theater from Kyiv. The group was formed by Les Kurbas (1887–1937), a movie and theater director and the most notable representative of Ukrainian avant-garde. By the way, “Berezil” is an old-fashioned name for March, which symbolized the Ukrainian culture revival.

Kharkiv Drama Theater early in the morning when the city still sleeps. The black plaques on the facade commemorate Les Kurbas and famous Ukrainian actors who worked here.

However, just in a decade, in 1933, Les Kurbas and many other artists, actors, writers, and scientists fell victim to the infamous Stalin’s Great Purge. It was mass extermination of the Ukrainian intelligentsia: hundreds of people were abducted and murdered in concentration camps.

1) Les Kurbas’s portrait. 2) The last play before imprisonment. 3) Before execution.

Selivanov’s House (1912)

This exquisite building stands in the vicinity of the theater: you can notice a pink theater’s corner in the photo below. Selivanov built a so-called “revenue house,” meaning that he would lease the rooms to residents and businesses.

Selivanov’s House has well-preserved facade advertisements from the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s a fantastic example of Ukrainian Art Nouveau and a signature work of Oleksandr Ginzburg (1876–1949), a Ukrainian architect of Jewish origin who designed over 30 buildings in Kharkiv. Ginzburg patented several inventions and stood at the root of Constructivism.

Prof. Avdakov‘s House (1874)

This house stands out on the street as it’s surrounded by much higher buildings. Believe it or not, it was even smaller — originally one-story; the upper floor was added in 1910. This house was designed for professor Avdakov by architect Grygory Stryzhevsky in the Art Nouveau style with neo-Gothic elements.

Neo-Gothic vibes of Avdakov House.

The first regional tuberculosis clinic opened here in 1910, and for more than a century, local doctors were saving thousands of lives.

And in just 20 meters from cute Avdakov’s House, a Russian missile struck several administrative buildings and killed people on Freedom Square.

Sumska Street after the Russian airstrike. © Vyacheslav Madiyevsky, Reuters
Hundreds of people hide from bombing in the metro. © Marcus Yam, Los Angeles Times

The Assumption Cathedral (1887–1892)

The city’s first Catholic temple appeared in the 1830s, but it didn’t survive the Second World War. The existing neo-Gothic temple was designed pro bono by architect Boleslav Mykhailovsky.

The Assumption Cathedral on a snowy November day.

Under Soviet rule, many religious buildings were dismantled, closed, or repurposed. For example, the Assumption Cathedral housed a Communist Party cinema and installation. After Ukraine had become independent, the Catholic faithful got their cathedral back.

Yuzefovych’s Palace (1913)

At the beginning of the 20th century, a substantial part of the modern main street was an outskirt, where the rich built their mansions. And the owner of a local printing house was no exception.

Gorgeous Yuzefovych’s House on a typical overcast day in November.

Architect Andriy Gorokhov designed this house in the popular Empire style with eclectic elements. The mansion was surrounded by a massive metal fence. However, The Yuzefovychs didn’t spend much time enjoying their beautiful residence.

After the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, established the Soviet Union, and conquered Kharkiv from independent Ukraine in 1917–1918, they confiscated this house and later created a concentration camp here.

Yuzefovych’s House: the grand entrance and a side facade with balconies.

Since the 1960s, the mansion has been used as a Wedding Palace. By the way, my sister got married here.

In a 5-minute walk from the palace, a Russian missile hit the historical house “Slovo” (“Word” in Ukrainian) on March 7. This is a national memorial site. It was funded by a literators’ cooperative in the late 1920s and housed many Ukrainian writers, some of whom, known as the Executed Renaissance, were later slaughtered by the Soviet Union.

“Slovo” House after it was hit by a Russian missile. © Unknown author

Women’s Gymnasium (1914)

This Art Nouveau house with the elements of English Gothic, colloquially called the “House with Chimaeras,” was built as an educational establishment and continues to play this role today. Younger sisters of one of the architects, Volodymyr Pokrovsky, studied here, and his elder sister managed the school.

Bizarre sculptures on the facade of the House with Chimaeras.
Foxes, pelicans, and faces of the House with Chimaeras.

From the 1970s, the house stayed closed for 15 years due to its dilapidated state but was properly refurbished later. Nowadays, it accommodates the theater faculty of the University of Arts.

Snarsky’s House (the 1910s)

Although this house is not very famous, it has its charm. Unfortunately, the only information I found is that the Snarsky family owned multiple houses nearby, and this one belonged to a governmental official.

Snarsky’s House adorns the corner of the streets.

5. Poltavsky Shlyakh and Kontorska Street

These two streets are among the oldest in Kharkiv; they stretch from the city center to the southwest and feature stunning 19–20th-century buildings. Poltavsky Shlyakh means “Poltava road” and used to be a road from Kharkiv castle to the city of Poltava. And Kontorska Street was named after the former tax office (“kontora” means “bureau”) in the 1930s.

Zalopan Fire Station (1845–1857)

One of the oldest fire stations in Ukraine and the oldest one in Kharkiv. It was designed by architect Arkady Alfiorov as a large 3-story building with several extensions and a 34-meter tower. A watchman was always on duty at the top to observe the city streets and give a signal to the fire brigade.

Old Kharkiv trams and Zalopan Fire Station in the evening.

Over time, the tower lost its relevance and became a purely architectural element. In 2008, the station was reconstructed, and they even tried to fit an exhibition into the tower, but it turned out to be too small.

Ivanov’s House (1875)

One more example of a “revenue house,” a widespread phenomenon between the 19th and 20th centuries. This house was designed by aforementioned Andrea-Moritz Thomson in the Art Nouveau style. The place is known by the name of engineer Ivanov, although he wasn’t the first owner.

Ivanov’s House before the street lights are switched on.

Initially, Ivanov’s House accommodated a grocery shop and rubber firm. In 1913, it passed into the ownership of the Swedish consul, who added a corner room and opened the cinema “Minion”; it was extremely popular among citizens. Nowadays, an engineering college is located within the walls of this beautiful old building.

Shapar’s House (the 1880s)

Probably, my favorite building outside of the tourist center. This two-story Art Nouveau estate was built for industrialist Boris Shapar. Locals believed that when Shapar was fleeing from the Soviet Union, he hid jewelry in the house, hoping he would get it back later. Several generations of owners dug up all basements, but, of course, to no avail.

Evening panorama of Shapar’s House stitched out of three separate photos. My wife and sister are standing in front of the entrance for scale.

The building resembles a crusaders’ palace, owing to its metal dome, towers, and gate-like entrance. Although the house transformed into a multi-family residential building, most of the original decoration — forged fences, screw stairs, carved doors — is generally preserved but dilapidated, to be honest.

In front of Shapar’s House is a burnt confectionery factory, built in 1873. The brick facades look picturesque, but going inside is dangerous.

The dilapidated confectionery factory and one of the old buildings on Kontorska Street.

Kontorska Street turned out to be love at first sight. It feels so cozy and miniature, and then you realize it’s in the second-largest city of Ukraine with around 1,4 million inhabitants!

Some random beautiful old houses at the beginning of Kontorska Street.

But this evening magic is gone. It vanished.

No one can enjoy magnificent Kharkiv streets anymore. Here’s a new reality: air raid sirens, curfew, and nefarious bombings.

The pictures of our ruined historical heritage rip my heart. Unfortunately, not all of it can be rescued and restored. Destruction and pain — this is what atrocious Russian “peacemakers” bring to our cities.

A totally ruined 1911 house in the city center. © Pavel Dorogoy, AP

Ukraine is at war. Russia claims it came to “liberate” the people of Ukraine from a non-existent “fascist regime,” “demilitarize” us from non-existent biological or nuclear weapons, and “rescue” the Russian-speaking population. And this is not only Putin; 71% of Russians are proud of this evil war.

Kharkiv is just 30 kilometers from the border with Russia. So, I wonder: why the hell do “oppressed” Kharkiv citizens fight the “liberators” and make a dangerous 1000-kilometer journey to the west of Ukraine and the EU instead of seeking shelter in “brotherly” Russia?

This is an evil war, and it should be stopped.

How to help Ukraine

  • Spread the truth about the war, killed and displaced civilians, and ruined cities on social media with the hashtags #StandWithUkraine, #RussiaInvadedUkraine, #PutinIsATerrorist, #StopPutin, #StopWar, #UkraineWillResist, #HelpUkraineNow, #StopRussianAggression.
  • Join anti-war rallies in your city. Demand action from your governments if they’re still in doubt. The Ukrainian Army is strong and motivated, but they need defense weapons to protect Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
  • Donate to the Special account of the National Bank of Ukraine (accepts nine different currencies; simplified payment in Euro and U.S. dollar).
  • Donate to the ‘Save Life’ Fund and their subsidiary ‘Come Back Alive’ (work since 2014; accept Euro, U.S. dollar, and Bitcoin).
  • Donate to the Medical Batallion ‘Hospitallers’.
  • Sign petitions aimed at protecting Ukraine and isolating the occupants. The citizens of the aggressor state should act and change their country instead of “feeling ashamed” and continuing to play games, watch TV, and plan vacations as if nothing happens.
  • Join your local volunteering organization helping Ukraine or bring needed goods to the collection points in your city.

Instead of post scriptum.

2020: the peaceful sunset in Kharkiv.
2022: Russians bombing Chuhuiv and Kharkiv. © Aris Messinis, AFP

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